Will the new UN Panel on Global Sustainability have an impact?

The diplomatic circus is full of high level commissions and panels on this and that, most of which deliberate, publish and sink without trace. But the UN’s new High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability, launched this week by Ban Ki-moon, may just be an exception. It certainly has a hell of a job description: ‘finding ways to lift people out of poverty while tackling climate change and ensuring that economic development is environmentally friendly’, according to the UN newswire.

The 21-member panel will be co-chaired by Finland’s President Tarja Halonen and South African President Jacob Zuma. It’s membership is heavily weighted towards current and former political leaders, with as far as I can see, only one private sector representative – the CEO of Research in Motion, the company that makes Blackberries. The only vaguely civil society member, Mexican environmentalist Julia Carabias, was also Secretary of the Environment. It’s also pretty light on academics, though presumably they can be drafted in later (full list of members here). That suggests that its job is more about influencing governments than coming up with any radical new insights, and highlights the welcome lack of overlap with the science-based work of the IPCC.

Over the next two years, the panel will work on a game plan for resolving the tensions between tackling climate change and economic growth (a subject dear to this blog’s heart), which they will present to delegates at the 2012 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Ban says he has ‘asked the Panel to think big’, so then the question becomes one familiar to anyone engaged in advocacy – how big? If it doesn’t go far enough in challenging received wisdom on the sanctity of growth, it won’t achieve anything, if it goes to the other extreme and starts preaching degrowth, it is unlikely to get a hearing. 
 
As if that wasn’t enough, officials also hope it will help resolve stalled international climate change negotiations and perhaps secure a replacement treaty to the Kyoto Protocol. Anything else you’d like them to do – harness fusion energy? Find a cure for cancer?

What’s really welcome here is the recognition that there is a big picture challenge on the nature of growth that has been sidelined as governments grapple with the aftermath of the global economic crisis. Someone has to lead the thinking on it – let’s hope the Global Sustainability Panel can do so.

Janos Pasztor, the head of Ban’s climate change support team, who will also manage the new panel’s administration, expects it to begin work around the U.N. General Assembly in New York this September. Ban expects a report from the panel to be completed by the end of 2011, in time for him to forward it to UNFCCC negotiations in South Africa  in December 2011 and then to the delegates gathering for the Earth Summit. Fingers crossed.

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Comments

2 Responses to “Will the new UN Panel on Global Sustainability have an impact?”
  1. Sustainability of growth, development and the protection of the environment that is a tall order especially for a group of politicians that all have been involved, in some way or another, in this debate in the past.

    Sustainable growth as I see it depends on the availability of resources – natural and produced products, capital and human. The shareable cake should increase over time as the population increases, hopefully at rate larger than the rate of the increase of the population. This has to be done with consideration to the environment, which is threatened by technologies that have not kept up with the requirements of environmental protection. This has all got to be achieved within the next 4 years.

    Mr Moon, there is no way that 21 or any other number of people will be able to do this! This again looks to me to be a public relations exercise to keep the rest of the developing world quite.

  2. Nicholas Colloff

    Having had breakfast with the President of Finland recently (nice opening sentence) in Doha (of all places), I find it difficult to imagine she would put her name to a public relations exercise (and will want a specific focus on women in a development context, three cheers from Oxfam) so I do not suspect the intention but would doubt the process resulting in anything more than one of those ‘seminal’ reports that never subsequently escaps the ‘quote marks’ because they are not attached to any subsequent ‘process of change’ through governance channels that actually make a difference.

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